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A Russian Gil Blas, censorship, and Jewish characters in Russian literature

October 17, 2012

I’m quite late in linking to Languagehat’s post on Narezhnyi’s A Russian Gil Blas (Российский Жилблаз, 1814), which makes the book sound delightful and is a delight itself. Coincidentally he quotes Ronald D. LeBlanc (whose article on Dostoevskii and carnality I just read) at some length.

A Russian Gil Blas had trouble with the censors. George Grabowicz wrote that its suppression resulted from the “acuity of Narezhny’s satire, a satire animated by Enlightenment rationalism and moralism,” which “encompasses the various strata of society and shows vice and iniquity in its endless manifestations.” But LH reports Leo Livak’s argument that it was banned because it positively portrays a Jewish character.

Though I had never seriously considered the matter, it had seemed to me as a reader that Jewish characters were rare in Russian literature in the first half of the nineteenth century, appearing suddenly in large numbers in the 1860s and 1870s, and portrayed negatively even by writers who were or had been secular and cosmopolitan in outlook. In particular I thought that Dostoevskii and Nekrasov wrote next to nothing about Jews in the 1840s but lots in the 1860s and 1870s. Leskov’s anti-Jewish prejudice seems to peak in stories from 1878 and 1882, to be followed by the didactic, repentant “Tale of Theodore the Christian and His Friend Abraham the Hebrew” (Сказание о Федоре-христианине и о друге его Абраме-жидовине, 1886; see McLean 418-35). My naive assumption was that something had changed in Russian life, perhaps that more Jews were allowed to live outside the Pale of Settlement during the era of great reforms, so that non-Jewish St. Petersburg and Moscow writers responded to their new neighbors as a new phenomenon. Before Alexander II, I assumed that in the capitals writers just weren’t thinking about the Jews, who lived somewhere out in the western provinces. (In this connection it may be significant that Narezhnyi and Gogol were Ukrainian.) Livak makes me wonder if the censors just permitted less writing about Jews before the 1860s.

Here’s the anti-Jewish passage that shocked me in Nekrasov (from “The Ballet”/Балет, 1866):

Вообще в бельэтаже сияло
Много дам и девиц красотой.
Очи чудные так и сверкали,
Но кому же сверкали они?
Доблесть, молодость, сила — пленяли
Сердце женское в древние дни.
Наши девы практичней, умнее,
Идеал их — телец золотой,
Воплощенный в седом иудее,
Потрясающем грязной рукой

Груды золота…

I’m almost sure this image would have been absent in an 1840s Nekrasov poem or an 1840s description of a Russian theater, for whatever reason.

Narezhnyi also leads LH to look into the etymology of “fedora.”

4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 17, 2012 8:55 am

    Unfortunately, with respect to Jews nothing much ever seems to change in Russia. I learn from Alexander Anichkin that the superficially brilliant Rossiya 1 TV adaptation of Grossman’s Жизнь и судьба (the scenes I saw were superbly done) basically ignores the Jewish theme of the book: no camps, no Holocaust. Apparently both the director Ursulyak and the screenwriter Volodarsky said that there was too much freedom in the novel and too much emphasis on the Jewish theme. (The attitude to freedom is another thing that never seems to change.)

    • October 18, 2012 1:42 pm

      I take your point, though I think it’s possible to see changes over time within an enduring strain of anti-Jewish prejudice. In the case of the Grossman adaptation, I think there’s a widespread desire to push the Holocaust to the background, without actually denying it, so that it can’t rival the twenty million Soviet casualties in a competition of World War II tragedies. It’s easy to see how that desire fits into a larger pattern of cultural attitudes toward Jews, but I think it’s important to think of it in the context of the cultural importance of World War II and the Soviet legacy too.

  2. October 18, 2012 1:55 pm

    Oh, sure, I certainly didn’t mean to reduce it all to a facile catchall explanation. It’s just that the persistence of anti-semitism (and not just in Russia, obviously) is so damn depressing.

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